My Own Philadelphia Experiment

by T. C. Cummings

"The Philadelphia Experiment" is purported to be a top secret episode that transported a Navy warship and her crew through space and time. I experienced a similar event in Philadelphia after I traveled 1,500 miles east and eighteen years back in time to step onto the deck of the guided missile destroyer I served on.

After running the gauntlet of shipyard security, I approached the former USS Preble and crossed from the wharf to her deck. It was strange to board her without rendering honors to the flag or the officer of the deck but the quarterdeck had been silent and the jackstaff empty for more than six years. Stricken from the naval registry, she had already been sold for scrap only to have been repossessed. She was due to be sold again for the same purpose, an ending shared by hundreds of ships since our country claimed victory in the Cold War. Realizing that a warship is merely a weapons platform, I appreciate how advances in technology caused a ship, that was launched when Eisenhower was president, to enter a state of obsolescence. Even so, it was hard to witness a fine ship laying in rusty repose, cast aside by the nation she so ably served until 1991.

On this retrospective trek I was accompanied by a shipyard official. It was surreal, just the two of us on the ship. Because I had known her with a full complement of officers and enlisted men, it felt alien to be the only men onboard. To find the doors to the combat information center and weapons areas left open was awkward. When she was operational these were secure spaces. Now the equipment no longer represented technology as much as it did history. The door to the officer’s berthing area also stood open, its plaque declaring "Officers Country - No Passageway" but obeyed by no one. Still, I walked through feeling as though I was going to be reprimanded. In the wheel house on the bridge, the engine order telegraph was missing as was the Captain’s chair. The windows of the bridge were painted over, the battle and campaign ribbons once displayed on the exterior had been removed. All were indicators she was no longer a warship. Worse still, because her power plant was idle and incapable of raising steam again, she was a ship no more, just a hulk at the final eight bells of her life.

The hull number on her bow was painted over making it obvious her identity was removed, sending her into anonymity. The name "Preble" on her stern was obliterated too, as were the names on the ships moored around her. With the Preble, the other ships comprised a silent fleet awaiting the day ship breakers transform their steel and other components from military machines to peaceful products. Occasionally, former crew members ask for permission to go onboard the ships and walk through the shadows of their youth as I did that day. Most sailors are sentimental enough that the sight of gray ladies moored away from the mainstream with their identities methodically removed tug at the heartstrings. To spend time on a ship that was so uniquely familiar was nearly beyond words.

Walking through the quiet compartments, one is struck with the dramatic contrasts between this present eerie silence and the deafening roar of weaponry that once filled this venerable vessel. This ship was the first of her class to fire a weapon at a hostile force and was the last U.S. warship to fire on shore batteries during the Vietnam war but presently that seems so very removed from the here and now. That she participated in the retrieval of downed aviators and launched a rescue mission that resulted in her helicopter pilot being awarded the Medal of Honor, is muted by her inability to ever be underway again. Rusting deck plates and fading paint obscures her condition when she had efficiency awards painted on her superstructure. I looked at the area of the ship that had taken enemy fire during one of her Vietnam deployments and recalled how I envisioned myself as bullet proof when I served onboard. During my time on the ship, this graceful lady sliced through the water at thirty eight knots, a remarkable speed in that it occurred at the end of a thirteen month overhaul and twenty years of hard steaming.

Not without trepidation, I went up and down ladders that I used to climb with speed and assurance and toured areas where I used to work for days without sleep. I touched valves where I developed callused hands and suffered superficial steam burns (badges of honor for we "snipes" who worked below). Little did I know at the time that the job I had chosen in the military would lay the foundation for a civilian career. The education and experience I received as a engineering non-commissioned officer prepared me to become a chief engineer, and enter a business wherein I have been involved with the management of 54 million square feet of buildings. But if the past eighteen years are an accurate barometer, there will always be a part of this ship in my being.

Before leaving I asked my host to take a photograph of me on the fantail. Compared to a photograph of me on the same location years earlier, it is obvious both the old gal and I looked better then. I am twenty pounds heavier and she is three hundred and eighty six men lighter. Behind me in the original Pearl Harbor image was the Arizona memorial. In the Philadelphia photo, stricken ships. Like the Preble, reminders all, of the ships that take their crews in harm’s way.

[ Quarterdeck | 1998 Photos ]

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